Do you remember the TV game show Let's Make a Deal? When a participant won some money, moderator Monty Hall would not reveal to the winner the amount. Instead he gave the winner the option of choosing a gift hidden behind a curtain or keeping the money, however great or small the amount. The player had to choose between the unknown amount of money and the veiled object. The hidden item might be an expensive car—or a hog.
Suppose the moderator announced that the gift behind the curtain was wisdom. No doubt the audience would shout, "Take the money!" But the Book of Proverbs repeatedly urges, "Take wisdom!" Why? Because wisdom far exceeds the value of any monetary gain. Wisdom, Solomon wrote, "is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold" (Prov. 3:14) and "is more precious than rubies" (8:11). Imagine. Here is something more valuable than money.
Why is wisdom so important? Because it brings peace, order, harmony, well-being, satisfaction, joy. Wisdom in the Bible doesn't mean being intellectual, scholarly, or smart, however. It means having godly discernment, insight, prudence. The Book of Proverbs equates wisdom with being godly, not with having a high IQ.
How do we get this kind of wisdom? Solomon answered that question at the beginning of his book: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (1:7). And later he wrote, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (9:10). In fact he mentioned the fear of God fourteen times in this book. Want wisdom? Then begin by fearing God. In fact "beginning" means not only the starting point but also the very essence. What then does it mean to fear God? It doesn't mean being terrified of Him. Instead it means recognizing who He is and responding accordingly. Seeing that God is sovereign, infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present, holy, just, faithful, gracious, and loving, we should respond with awe, trust, worship, service, love, and obedience. Only when we do that are we wise in God's sight.
In other words a wise person is a godly person. The Hebrew word for wisdom basically means skill—skill in one's work and in one's relationships and responsibilities. So if you are wise in the biblical sense, you are living skillfully, that is, you are "successful" in the right sense in what you do and are. And all this begins by being rightly related to God.
Conversely a fool, according to Proverbs, is one who is wicked, one who is not recognizing who God is and responding accordingly. Proverbs uses several words for fool, ranging in meaning from the naïve to the stupid, from the stubborn to the spiritually insensitive.
Proverbs repeatedly contrasts the wise and the foolish. As a book of two paths, Proverbs shows the consequences of choosing a godly, wise path and of choosing a wicked, unwise path. And the many verses in this profound book get this point across in interesting ways. Its wide scope of topics reveals that Proverbs is God's "how-to" book. Its appeal stems from its wide-ranging subject matter. Here you'll find counsel on how to get along with people, how to stay out of trouble, how to raise your kids, how to deal with anger, how to be honest, how to make friends, and countless other how-tos.
Proverbs discusses such down-to-earth subjects as eating too much, talking too much, living with a nagging wife or a violent man, being lazy, being arrogant. It touches on everything from spanking a child to ruling a nation, from controlling your tongue to controlling your temper, from managing money to managing marriage.
Think of the many people Proverbs mentions: gossipers and gripers, liars and losers, swindlers and scoffers, talkers and stalkers, drunkards and derelicts, and a host of others. And guidance is available for fathers, mothers, teens, children, wives, husbands, widows, poor people, and rulers.
One of the features of these proverbial sayings that immediately strikes us is their brevity. In a few carefully chosen words each proverb packs a wallop of truth. Josh Billings once wrote that proverbs are like needles: short, sharp, and shiny. Why their brevity? Because they are more easily remembered, they make us stop and think, and they impact the soul. Their conciseness adds to their incisiveness.
Each proverb's carefully chosen words are like a distillery: many observations and experiences are condensed into pithy sayings. As Miguel de Cervantes wrote in the 1500s, "These short sentences are drawn from long experience." Many of the proverbs state what Solomon and others have observed, whereas other proverbs share what the authors themselves have experienced. Some proverbs tell us what life is like (observations) and others tell what we should do (exhortations). These maxims boil down, crystallize, and condense what others have seen and done.
Besides their brevity the proverbs are also known for being witty. We can't help but smile when we read, "As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed" (26:14). Or, "Better to live on a corner of the roof than to share a house with a quarrelsome wife" (21:9).
How can you get the most out of this word-packed book? Here are some ideas on how to probe Proverbs.
- Follow the S-S-S method: Select, Search, and Sort. Select a topic, such as laziness. Then using a concordance, Search for all the verses on laziness, looking for words like "lazy," "sluggard," and "idleness." Then Sort what the verses say about laziness—what the lazy person is like, what happens as a result of being lazy, how the lazy person differs from the diligent person.
- Use the R-and-R method: Read and Record. When you read a verse, write the reference and then jot down the subject or subjects that are touched on in the verse. As you go through Proverbs using this method, you'll be amazed at the number of topics, issues, and relationships this book explores.
- Use the M-R-A method: Memorize, Reword, and Apply. Select a verse to memorize, write out the idea of the verse in your own words, and then put down how you plan to live out that idea in the next several days.
- Use the "Better Than" method: About twenty verses in Proverbs state that one thing is better than another. Find these verses and note what God says is preferable and why.
- Use the I-Spy method: Read a verse or two in the morning. Then, like playing a game of I-Spy, look during the day for ways these facts are followed or violated in people's lives. In the evening share these observations with a friend or family member. You'll be amazed how current are God's many axioms.
The Book of Proverbs is especially appropriate for young people. So if you have teens in your family, encourage them to follow one or more of these study methods.
Live by this book and you'll be wise. Neglect its truths and you'll be otherwise. So—wise up and live!
Dr. Roy B. Zuck (ThM, 1957; ThD, 1961) is editor of Bibliotheca Sacra, Dallas Seminary's quarterly theological journal, and copy and theological editor for Kindred Spirit. He served on Dallas's faculty for twenty-three years, including eight years as vice-president for academic affairs.